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What our objects – from mailboxes to coffee grinders – say about us

Hitting the January design shows? There are two rewarding style anthologies to flip through in between wandering the booths. In The Art of Things, published by Abbeville Press, French curator Dominique Forest surveys international product designs from 1945 to the present, examining them by country of origin and with an assumption that the tendencies of a national identity contribute to the sensibility of its industrial-design hits. Bloomsbury's Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things, meanwhile, touches on the design icons that have over time become such a part of our everyday lives that we take them for granted (think Post-it notes and the like).

Despite the premise of The Art of Things, design's inspirational borders are more porous than the book acknowledges. Gino Sarfatti's 1956 desk lamp with exposed bulb, for example, has a philosophy in common with a German invention, the object that arguably ushered in a taste for aesthetic minimalism in tech: Reinhold Weiss's cylinder Braun coffee grinder of 1967 (both are featured in the book). At around the same time, David Harman-Powell of Britain was developing the stackable and colourful Novaware crockery for Ecko, launched the following year; it helped popularize thermoplastics as a viable alternative material and promoted the idea of functional kitchen accessories as an extension of interior design.

Of course, evaluating product designs according to where they came from begs the question of whether any of Canada's stereotypical qualities – such as humility – translate into its objects with any consistency. To me, it seems silly to infer any commonality between, say, Frank Gehry's 1972 Wiggle chair for Vitra and 2006's Onedge rocker by Toronto's Brothers Dressler just because they share similarly loose silhouettes and equally humble materials (corrugated cardboard in the case of the former and birch plywood in the latter). Indeed, a survey of Canadian seating design suggests a much more dynamic and idiosyncratic trajectory.

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The seamless tubular-metal Karema chair that Michel Dallaire designed for Habitat 67, for instance, has echoes not in other chairs, but in his own 2009 design of the Bixi public bike system, a design platform subsequently adopted by similar systems in New York and London to the tune of more than 10,000 bicycles. Montreal-based Age Design's ingenious and cheerful dual-height HiLo high chair, designed by Patrice Guillemin and Geneviève Grenier 10 years ago, is just as pragmatic, reflecting a turn-of-the-century parental preoccupation with choosing fewer but better items that will last. Patty Johnson's recent, elegant Haida chair, meanwhile, captures the same dignified presence as that culture's sentinel totems.

But if Canadian chair design is intriguingly wide-ranging, at least one new icon hints at our supposed humility: the Postino wall-mounted mailbox designed for Umbra by Matt Carr more than a decade ago. Featuring a hinged, lightly dimpled flap, the mailbox resembles a fat envelope with a sensuous cupid's bow, a flourish so subtle as to be almost apologetically self-effacing – and particularly counterintuitive in an age when 24/7 home-reno TV fuels competitive curb appeal. Curiously, though, Postino's wild and ongoing popularity is also in sync with the rise of digitization: Even as paper invoices and magazine subscriptions convert to e-bills and tablet editions, letter mail is waning and Canada Post plans to curtail and eventually phase out daily home delivery altogether, nary a residential street seems to be without at least one Postino-sporting house.

Reflected in this item destined for obsolescence (unless nostalgia counts as a design function), the Canadian taste for a small detail you can barely notice from the curb is endearing. And seems exactly right.

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Nathalie More

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